As a member of the Texas Rangers organization this season, Mitch Hilligoss is playing with Bakersfield of the High-A California League.
During the two previous seasons, in the New York Yankees system, the Purdue product spent his time with the Tampa Yankees of the High-A Florida State League.
While the two circuits are technically the same level, they have drastically different reputations. The FSL is known as a pitcher-friendly league, with games being played in big league Spring Training ballparks where the ball doesn't carry. The Cal League, on the other hand, generally favors hitters.
A former sixth-round selection in 2006, Hilligoss was once regarded as one of the Yankees' more promising hitting prospects before his career stalled, as he batted just .239 in 619 total at-bats in the Florida State League.
This past offseason, New York shipped Hilligoss to Texas in exchange for previously designated-for-assignment outfielder Greg Golson.
The change of scenery appears to be benefiting Hilligoss, but it's not all because of the park factors.
In fact, although Bakersfield's Sam Lynn Ballpark is just 354 feet to dead centerfield, it's actually surprisingly difficult to hit a ball over the fence at that spot.
"When you first show up, you're thinking, ‘Wow, you're going to pop a few out even if you get jammed," Hilligoss said.
"But the joke in the clubhouse is that it's the Ghost of Sam Lynn. There's a barrier out there in centerfield, and unless you hit a line drive, it's not going."
Returning to High-A for a third consecutive season, Hilligoss got off to a slow start, hitting only .262 with two extra-base hits in April.
But the 24-year-old has been on fire recently, and he was 8-for-11 with two doubles and two walks during the just-completed three-game set against Visalia.
Hilligoss has some raw talent, as he whips the bat through the zone with a strong lower hand and shows a decent eye for the strike zone. He says the recent surge has been all about mechanics.
"I'm staying on and not flying open––not rolling over," Hilligoss said of his success. "That has been a constant problem. I hadn't really hit lefties well. That was one thing I talked with Woody [hitting coach Jason Wood] and Has [manager Bill Haselman] about today––staying on the ball. More thinking right back up the middle and not trying to be overanxious and pulling the ball."
For the most part, the left-handed hitting Hilligoss has struggled against fellow southpaws this season. But he found some success against Visalia, as two of the three starting pitchers he faced were lefties.
The recent hot streak has bumped Hilligoss' season average up to .293, and he has 15 walks versus 17 strikeouts on the year. But with just eight extra-base hits, he's not quite happy with his season.
"Obviously, as a team, we're not playing the way we should by any means," he said. "Hopefully we can kind of turn this around and get going in the right direction.
"Personally, it hasn't really been up and down, but I haven't consistently gotten the amount of hits or been driving the ball like you need to have a good season."
Primarily a third baseman in the Yankees system, Hilligoss says he was told in Spring Training that his versatility would be utilitized, and he would become a jack-of-all-trades player in the field––particularly with second-round pick Tom Mendonca playing third in Bakersfield.
"Going into Spring Training, I talked to Scott Servais and he said, ‘We'll move you around. We're not afraid to move you around.' I told him I was fine with anything that gets me in the lineup. I like it––it keeps you guessing and it's fun."
In only 45 games this season, Hilligoss has already gotten in the lineup at first base, third base, left field, right field, and DH. However, due to the offensive struggles of Jared Bolden, he appears to be settling in as the club's everyday first baseman.
As a veteran of the hot corner, Hilligoss is accustomed to playing a corner infield spot, but he still has some adjusting to do at first.
"The big thing between me and [second baseman] Erik Morrison is that I always want to go too far to my right," he said. "Then he has to throw to the pitcher. That's the third base in me, I guess. I've got to try and break that habit a little bit."
As Hilligoss is heating up offensively, so are the temperatures in Bakersfield, where it consistently reaches triple-digits in the summer. And that should turn Sam Lynn into more of a hitter-friendly environment.
"Woody keeps telling me the warmer it gets, the more the ball starts to fly," Hilligoss said. "I think we're seeing that a little bit right now. It is the hottest it has been all year, and the ball is starting to fly a little better."
Hilligoss heating up
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